What Should Evan Rodrigues’ Next Contract Look Like?
On July 21st, the team offer and player ask in arbitration for Evan Rodrigues were reported and Sabres’ fans on Twitter did not seem happy with what the team might end up paying Rodrigues. The Sabres were at $1.5M while Rodrigues’s camp was at $2.65M. I would expect a deal to be reached prior to arbitration but if it isn’t, it is likely the arbitrator would award the mid-point between the two sides, which would be $2.075M. Based on our contract projections, this would be a team friendly contract as we projected Rodrigues to be just under $2.3M on a short-term contract. If I were running the Sabres, I would look to get Rodrigues locked up to a longer-term contract that would take him to age 29. This would be a four-year contract, worth $3.5M per season. If Sabres’ fans thought Rodrigues’s ask of $2.65M was crazy, they probably think I am insane. To me, the craziest part of this negotiation is Rodrigues’ agent has asked for an amount that is far too low. Let’s take a look at how we came to our valuation for Rodrigues. Please note that all statistics discussed are sourced from naturalstattrick.com and are 5v5 statistics unless otherwise noted. All salary data is courtesy of capfriendly.com.
The Structure of a Long-term Contract
When looking at the list of comparable players who signed their long-term contract at age 25 or 26, many of the strong comparisons signed contracts that took them to age 29. This means a four-year contract would make sense. As far as comparable players go, I would look at Lars Eller and Bryan Rust, who both signed four-year contracts with a $3.5M average annual value. If we were to look at these contracts in terms of cap hit percentage, the average of the two is 4.735%. That translates to a $3.93M average annual value (AAV). Next, we will discuss how Rodrigues compares to Eller and Rust and if the cap hit percentage should be used or if Rodrigues should slot slightly below these players in cap hit percentage, which would occur with a $3.5M average annual value. The recent four-year contract, carrying an AAV of $2.75M for Oscar Sundqvist does throw a little wrench in things, maybe to the Sabres’ benefit.
Both Rust and Eller have played a critical role as middle-six players on top teams. They are players who have shown an ability to play top line minutes if called upon, but their primary roles are to be quality two-way players who can add some offense. Sundqvist has played a role that is a step down from the other two, playing mostly bottom six minutes, with little time on a top line. I see Evan Rodrigues in a more similar light to Rust and Eller. Rodrigues has demonstrated versatility, playing everywhere from the first-line to fourth-line. He has also shown an ability to be effective at both wing and center.
When looking strictly at point production during 5v5 play, Rodrigues’s total point production in his platform season is between Eller and Rust, with very similar goal production. Sundqvist’s goal scoring propelled him to a clear point advantage over these players. We can all agree that Rodrigues has played on much inferior teams than Eller, Rust, and Sundqvist leading into their four-year contracts. I don’t think it would be completely unreasonable to chalk Rodrigues’s inferior assist totals in his platform season to playing with line mates who struggled to generate offense. If Rodrigues wasn’t the one scoring or directly setting up the goal, chances were the Sabres were not going to score, given Rodrigues’s incredibly low secondary assists. If given the opportunity to consistently play with line mates who can better generate offense, he should be able to pick up some additional secondary assists. The season before provides some evidence for this hypothesis. I also think Rodrigues is an example of a player where using beyond the box score statistics can help paint a clearer picture of the player’s individualized impact. Below you can find a comparison of Rodrigues to Eller, Rust, and Sundqvist’s scoring metrics in their platform seasons.
Next, I want to look at the on-ice metrics. In Rodrigues’ last two seasons with the Sabres, the team struggled to control the shot differential so it would be perfectly reasonable to see Rodrigues have poor metrics as well. However, he does not. When Rodrigues was on the ice, the Sabres broke just about even in the shot counter over the past two seasons. Control of the on-ice shot counter is typically related to controlling the goal differential while a player is on the ice. All four of the players we are assessing here have a similar trend in this aspect. Rodrigues and Rust see their goal differential slightly worse than their on-ice shot differential, while Sundqvist’s is slightly better. Eller is the only one who saw a dramatic shift from shot differential to goal differential. However, it is critical to consider the teams each player plays on when looking at these metrics. Below you will find the comparison for their on-ice metrics.
In order to control for the fact that Rodrigues’ Sabres are a far inferior team to the teams that Eller and Rust played on, we want to look to the player’s relative statistics, which are measuring how much better or worse the team performs with the player on the ice. Please note that when looking at CA/60 Rel or GA/60 Rel, lower numbers are better. This is indicating that the team is giving up X% less when the player is on the ice. When looking at Rodrigues’ relative metrics, I see a player who is valuable to his team, especially considering the role he has been asked to play. Rodrigues and Rust look incredibly strong here, while Eller and Sundqvist struggle.
With Rodrigues having strong underlying metrics, it is curious that his scoring numbers decreased this past season until you look at his usage. When Rodrigues’s scoring was up, he was starting just under half of his shifts (that started with a faceoff) in the offense zone. In his platform season, he received more ice time but only started 40% of his shifts in the offensive zone. A side effect of being asked to play more of a defensive role is playing with players who are “offensively challenged.” That will certainly hinder his ability to generate points.
Overall, I think Rodrigues compares very well to both Eller and Rust. I think Rodrigues could be more productive offensively if given an opportunity to do so. A focus on taking shots in higher danger areas could also help. The big question is whether that opportunity is there under a new coach. As things currently stand, I would probably slot Rodrigues slightly behind Eller and Rust, given he has only played close to one full season in Buffalo and the others had more of a proven track record at the time of signing. If we were to look at things in terms of cap hit percentage, an AAV of $3.5M probably makes sense as it comes in at a cap hit percent of 4.58%, which is lower than both Eller and Rust. The recent signing of Sundqvist does throw a wrench into things. He probably signed for slightly less than his market value on a four-year contract as he also compares well to both Eller and Rust so he should have been able to get closer to the $3.5M than he did. For Rodrigues, this probably knocks his value down into the range of $3M to $3.25M, which I think would be an absolute steal for the Sabres. I would still be comfortable with paying Rodrigues $3.5M on a four-year contract, though if the team can save some money because of Sundqvist’s signing, then they absolutely should.
Rodrigues’ Value on a Short-Term Contract
When constructing an arbitration case, each side presents comparable players that they believe justify their position. In a perfect world, player performance and salary would be perfectly correlated. Obviously, that does not happen. Inferior players get paid more and superior players get paid less. This allows both sides to latch onto one or more players that they believe they can use to make their case. There are plenty of options to use for either side. I will highlight one player Rodrigues’ side should use, one the Sabres should use, and the player who is probably most similar to Rodrigues.
Player Most in Rodrigues’ Favor – Vladislav Namestnikov
If I were on Rodrigues’ side, I would be using Vladislav Namestnikov’s contract from last season (two years, 5.03% of the salary cap) to drive up his value. I would have asked for $4M in arbitration and been able to present a strong argument to get very close to that value. Below, you can see the comparison of the players in terms of their Scoring, On-Ice and Relative Metrics from their platform seasons.
Namestnikov appears to be the slightly superior player as he scored goals at a better rate and had superior on-ice metrics. However, a strong argument could be made that Rodrigues did more to improve his team’s performance. He had a far superior primary assist rate, meaning he was directly setting up goals and was incredibly strong in improving the team’s shot and goal differential. It is likely that Rodrigues will ultimately end up getting paid $2M less than Namestnikov, which would be incredible value for the Sabres.
Player Most in the Sabres’ Favor – Marcus Kruger
Let me preface this by saying I think Rodrigues’ numbers are superior to Kruger. The problem is the difference is somewhat minimal. To me, the difference between Rodrigues and Kruger is very similar to the difference between Namestikov and Rodrigues. If you were to present the argument that Rodrigues should be paid a little less than Namestikov, then I would counter with Rodrigues shouldn’t be paid much more than Kruger’s (one year, 2.05%). This could be the argument the Sabres present as they came in very close to Kruger’s contract under today’s cap hit ($1.67M). They also will likely attach themselves to Vinnie Hinostroza’s two-year, $1.5M AAV contract. However, Rodrigues is a vastly different player and is asked to play a significantly different role so I am going to highlight Kruger who plays a more similar role to Rodrigues.
When looking at Rodrigues and Kruger in their platform seasons, I would argue that the two players performed very similarly but Kruger benefited from playing on a stronger team as shown by his relative metrics. While Rodrigues improved his team when on the ice, Kruger weakened his. He also lagged behind in primary assists, which in turn lessened his total point production. Let’s take a look at the numbers.
There should be little doubt that Rodrigues should be paid more than Kruger, though how much more is the looming question. It probably isn’t significant enough to approach Rodrigues’ ask of $2.65M, but it is significant enough to get Rodrigues to around the $2M he will likely receive.
Most Comparable Player to Evan Rodrigues – Joonas Donskoi
The top comparable player for Evan Rodrigues is Joonas Donskoi at age 25. He signed a two-year, 2.53% contract. Under today’s salary cap, that would be $2.06M, which is nearly identical to the arbitration midpoint. I think Rodrigues’ stats could warrant a slightly higher salary than Donskoi but if I were to pick the most comparable player for Rodrigues, Donskoi is where I settle. Their on-ice and relative metrics are very similar. Rodrigues scored at slightly better rates. The one area where Rodrigues has a clear advantage is his team improved their goal differential while he was on the ice while Donskoi’s team got worse in their platform seasons. Let’s look at their numbers.
In their platform season, Rodrigues looks superior. However, when looking at each player’s platform minus one season, Donskoi had far superior advanced metrics in a full season, while Rodrigues had better point production in a condensed season. Though I have not previously highlighted more than one season in any section to keep this article more streamlined, I think it is critical here so you can see why Donskoi is the most comparable player.
One question that has to be answered is which of the past two seasons is more representative of Rodrigues’ scoring abilities. Based on comparable players, I would guess Rodrigues should score around a rate of 1.5 points per 60 minutes. That has been his scoring rate for his career. Over the course of a season, that should translate to roughly 25-30 points during 5v5 play. With some special team production, I think Rodrigues could be around a 40-point player.
Rodrigues also has shown to be a fairly strong penalty killer, while Donskoi has not seen penalty kill minutes at all. As such, we would argue Rodrigues should be paid slightly more than Donskoi, but probably not a significant amount.
I should also discuss how I see the two players comparing beyond the statistics. I see both players as high-end third line players, who can slot higher in the lineup if needed. Although neither player is going to carry or drive a team, they are high quality depth players. In today’s NHL, players with Rodrigues’ and Donskoi’s skill sets and diversity are critical pieces in building championship level teams. If given the choice of having Rodrigues or Donskoi on my team at the same salary, I would take Rodrigues. However, if Rodrigues were making more than $500,000 more than Donskoi, I would take Donskoi.
I generally think most players can kill penalties if given the chance as most will produce average results. This is generally why I would not put too much value into penalty kill minutes. To explore this idea, I created a histogram, plotting every player’s Corsi against per 60 while the player is on the ice, showing forwards with at least 25 minutes. This was 227 players in total. The data is normally distributed meaning the principles of a bell curve will apply. This means that 68.2% of all players fall within one standard deviation of the average, so in my opinion they are basically interchangeable. When looking at players who provide a significant improvement in penalty killing, I would focus on players who fall more than one standard deviation below the average. This would be approximately 16% of the players. Rodrigues falls just above one standard deviation below the mean, as he was on the ice for 81.84 Corsi against per 60. Put into simple terms, I would consider Evan Rodrigues to be better than 81.5% of players who killed penalties in 2018-2019, which is 42 players in total. The Sabres used four main players on the penalty kill. Those four were Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Vladimir Sobotka, and Rodrigues. Rodrigues was by far the most effective of them. The only Sabre to play enough minutes to qualify in my sample and perform better than Rodrigues was Jack Eichel. Below, I have included and illustrated the histogram to visualize what I just narrated.
Because of Rodrigues’ versatility, detractors might point to some of his strong numbers being the result of playing with top end players. I will attempt to determine how valid that argument is. Here, I will look at Rodrigues’ relative shot metrics with and without a player. During the 2018-2019 season, Rodrigues played at least 50 minutes with 10 forwards. Those 10 forwards were Conor Sheary, Vladimir Sobotka, Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart, Jason Pominville, Jeff Skinner, Zemgus Girgensons, Casey Mittelstadt, Johan Larsson, and Tage Thompson. Only three of them (Jason Pominville, Zemgus Girgensons, and Johan Larsson) performed worse with Rodrigues than when they didn’t play with him. Additionally, the Sabres were a better team when Rodrigues was paired with everyone except Larsson, Girgensons, and Sobotka. Of course, Rodrigues played the second most minutes with Sobotka. Though we will never know, I would be interested in seeing how much better Rodrigues would have been had he not been saddled with the Sobotka anchor.
Last season, Evan Rodrigues was the Sabres’s fourth most valuable forward behind Eichel, Reinhart, and Skinner (in no particular order). He was one of the strongest forwards in improving the team’s performance while he was on the ice. He also was the team’s best regular penalty killer at forward. Sabre fans may look at Rodrigues’ point production and wonder why in the world would a team commit more than $2M to a player who only had nine goals and 29 assists across all situations and only seven goals and 14 assists during 5v5 play, while only just becoming a lineup regular at the end of the season. This is why we need to consider more than just his goals and assists. When we do, we see a player who compares well to versatile role players on Stanley Cup winning teams.
If the Sabres hope to take major steps forward, it is critical that they have bargain players who can provide lineup versatility. Right now, Rodrigues is that player. The team would be wise to avoid arbitration and lock Rodrigues up through his prime. Although you may see this as a risky move, I think it is the safest move the Sabres could make. We will soon see how the team feels about Rodrigues. For a team that has made some smart, numbers driven moves this offseason, securing Rodrigues would keep things moving in that direction. If they don’t, it will be another case of a step or two forward and a step back in their embrace of analytics.
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KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in
James Finch is an analyst at AFP Analytics. James graduated from St. John Fisher College in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in Sport Management with a minor in Economics. His background with sports and economics have brought about an interest in gaining experience and finding his niche within the sport analytics field.